First of all, let's define ecotourism. According to the dictionary ecotourism is any "tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife." The obvious destinations for this have to be national parks, but there is more to be found hiding behind American cities and in the little known wildernesses left in the country. If you have the inkling to get back to nature, to travel where humans have small ecological footprints and where "green" means more than the color of grass, check out some of these top U.S. destinations for student-friendly ecotourism.
The entire state of Alaska is mega-serious about sustainable living and leaving the smallest possible mark on the environment. As the last true frontier land in the U.S., Alaska wants to keep its wilderness wild. Because of this, much of the land is dangerous, especially for novice hikers. Not to worry though! Much of this scenic wilderness exists within national and state parks that offer tours, trails, and guided hikes to all of the best spots.
Kenai Fjords National Wildlife Refuge is perhaps one of the best destinations with striking views of mountains rising from the frigid ocean waters, glaciers floating in the fjords, and wildlife roaming their natural habitats. Kayak on the fjords for quiet, eco-friendly views of wildlife and icy cliffs (caution: these waters are not for beginners and park rangers recommend guides). You may also take ranger-led walks to Exit Glacier, Harding Icefield, and they also offer a number of programs for all ages.
There are two California ecotourist destinations on my mind, the first being Half Moon Bay in Northern California. This coastal destination is set apart with its striking cliffs leading to a cerulean sea, forested coasts, and quaint seaside villages that make a pleasant contrast to SoCal's bumbling metropolises. Half Moon Bay has their own ecotourism program to bring in tourists with a desire to keep nature natural. Top attractions include the harbor where you can charter a boat to go whale watching, kayak in open water, or visit the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and explore the tide pools for the wildlife. Lighthouses, dairy farms, bird refuges, parks, beaches, and hiking areas abound in the area for more options.
The second California destination is off the coast of Los Angeles at Santa Catalina Island. Having a reputation as a major tourist resort, Catalina Island is more crowded than the other places on this list but that doesn't discount its sublime views. Conservancy efforts have tried to preserve the integrity of the island's natural flora and fauna, containing the resort area to the coasts. Take a Jeep ecotour, zip-line eco-tour, or of course, water-bound tours like kayaking, boating, whale watching, or even the Catalina Sea Trek tour where you wear astronaut-like suits and walk on the ocean floor and see the Giant Kelp Forest, a plethora of fish, and more. You don't even have to be SCUBA certified!
Wherever you look in Hawaii, no matter the island, you'll find ecotourism. Some of the most beautiful natural wonders in America abide in this tropical archipelago including Waimea Canyon, Na Pali Coast, Mauna Kea, and Haleakala Crater. Every bit of the island state is about conserving the natural ecosystem and sustainable living. Personally, I would head straight for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where you can see two active volcanoes oozing hot lava, trails through lush jungle-like forests and a number of exotic wildlife. This park has also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage and World Biosphere site! You should also look into Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oahu which is the result of strenuous efforts to restore the area to its previous glory and where you can find some of the best snorkeling in the world.
P.S. You can also check out the many plantations and farms on the islands to see how they grow bananas, coffee, etc.
This may seem like an odd choice considering the other destinations on this list but both North and South Dakota are making a comeback in adventure tourism and sustainable practices. South Dakota ecotourist attractions include the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs. Where else can you see actual wild horses running free? Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary offers guided hikes and tours through their facilities and grounds where they rescue all manner of unwanted wildlife including African lions, pumas, bears, wolves, and a number of domestic animals. Badlands National Park is another wonderful destination as one of the world's largest deposits for fossils and the home of bison and various Great Plains animals.
In North Dakota, head for Theodore Roosevelt National Park to tour the magnificent wildlife still living wild in the badlands. The Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge was voted one of the top 50 ecotourism destinations in the Great Plains states where you can see massive seas of grass like the kind pioneers traveling West would have seen. It's also a prime destination for bird-watchers as it is home to several declining species.
Our peninsular state friend in the south has excellent potential for a marvelous eco-friendly vacation with some educational value. The Everglades is the obvious choice and a great one for seeing one of the largest wetlands preserves (1.5 million acres!) with an odd collection of ecosystems including mangroves, marshes, cypress swamps, and more. Hundreds of species of both plants and animals call this park home including the American alligator, Florida panther, endangered leatherback turtle, and the West Indian manatee.
The Florida Keys are another great destination, especially for those who love ocean life. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Dolphin Research Center let you observe wild and rescued marine creatures up close. You can also visit conservation museums such as the Audubon House, Crane Point Hammock, and the Butterfly Conservatory & Nature Museum on Key West.
There are plenty of beautiful destinations for ecotours for every student group so relax, have fun on your trip and remember: take only pictures, leave only footprints.